Why Arms Sales to the Persian Gulf will Backfire

Recent Bush Administration plans to sell $20 billion in arms to the Gulf Arab states (while giving $30 billion plus to the Israelis) are being defended primarily within the logic of “balance of power.”
Out the window is Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s “transformational diplomacy” or peace through democracy promotion. We’re back to the old policy of peace through power. One might build an essay quoting Rice against herself.
Writing in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, emeritus University of Virginia Professor R.K. Ramazani points out a singular problem with such massive arms sales and power-balancing for the Persian Gulf region – namely, such policies haven’t worked before and are likely to be counter-productive yet again:

“The Bush administration’s plan to sell $20 billion of sophisticated weapons to Saudi Arabia and five other Arab monarchies is likely to backfire and produce less regional security. Far from balancing Sunni Arab states against Shia Iran, such massive arms sales may ignite conflicts that will make the current war in Iraq look like child’s play.”

Before unpacking Ramazani’s argument, consider Anthony Cordesman’s mainstream “realist” defense of such arms sales in a recent New York Times essay. We’ve commented here at justworldnews on the ordinarily respected Tony Cordesman in the past, particularly the commentary he did last summer while embedded with the Israeli military as it pounded Lebanon.
But Cordesman is hardly a cheerleader for the Bush Administration or for the neoconservative vantage point. Yet he felt it necessary to disclose that the beltway thinktank where he works, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, receives considerable financial support from Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the US Government – not to mention US military contractors. For one measured critique, see this “Werther” original by an anonymous northern-Virginia defense analyst.
While Cordesman has at times been a blunt, non-ideological critic of Bush Administration’s Iraq mis-steps, his New York Times argument in favor of the arms sales, the “Weapons of Mass Preservation,” boils down to the following points:

1. Critics of such arms sales are not operating in the “real world.” The Persian Gulf remains a critical “vital interest” to the US and the world economy. Oil must be “defended.”
2. We cannot defend oil “without allies,” and Saudi Arabia is the only “meaningful” ally available. (and oh never mind the recent “minor” reports of Saudi salafists showing up as guerrillas in Iraq. As for democracy and all that, allies like the Saudis inevitably are “less than perfect.”)
3. The chief threat then to “our” oil (e.g., to “jobs”) is Iran. (No evidence needed or presented.)
4. Announced arms sales (and gifts) to the region are really nothing new, as, after inflation, Israel may be getting less arms than before.

R.K. Ramazani, by contrast, asks a question Cordesman avoids – namely, does power-balancing in the region actually work? That is, can we demonstrate that it has produced stability and defended American interests?
(Disclosure, I helped condense this essay from a much longer draft, and even then two paragraphs were left out. Indeed, those of us who have known Professor Ramazani might recognize that this essay condenses 54 years of scholarship — and a year’s worth of advanced IR lectures.)
First, the balance of power hasn’t worked in the past; worse, it’s been counter-productive:

“For more than 50 years, the United States has obsessively played one Persian Gulf country against another, selling arms to allies to protect vital interests, primarily crude oil. Yet this balancing game has repeatedly proved counterproductive.
During the Cold War, Dwight Eisenhower sold arms to Iraq to counter Soviet support of Egypt, rendering Iraq vulnerable to an anti-Western revolution in 1958. Richard Nixon gave the Shah a blank check to bolster Iran against “radical” Iraq, but in the process catalyzed Iran’s 1979 revolution. Ronald Reagan then backed “moderate” Iraq against “fundamentalist” Iran, and, in turn, created the aggressive Saddam Hussein war machine that invaded Kuwait.
After ejecting Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, George H.W. Bush sold arms to the Gulf’s smaller Sunni monarchies to counter the power of Shia Iran. Yet the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia contributed to the rise of al-Qaeda. The subsequent destruction of the Taliban and Hussein regimes ironically eliminated Iran’s most bitter enemies, leaving Iran even stronger.”

With each new infusion of massive western arms, the regimes we supposedly are defending against other threats in turn are destabilized from within. For example, people dissatisfied inside Iran with the Shah of Iran’s repression naturally blamed the outside power that provided him with the massive arms that were the means, if not the source, of their misery. Pogo anyone?
Ramazani then offers, for the first time, a different insight on just why “balance of power” concepts that have been favored in the west since the 17th Century have been so difficult to apply to the Persian Gulf:

Continue reading “Why Arms Sales to the Persian Gulf will Backfire”

Riyadh: current center of Middle East diplomacy

We should note, first, who is at the current Arab summit meeting in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Not merely the heads of state of just about all the Arab countries (which is no trivial achievement), but also: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, etc.
Note that this includes authoritative representatives of two of the four members of the US-led so-called “Quartet”. (Here‘s the text of what Ban said. It’s worth reading.)
Note that no high-level representative from the US attended. (I wonder if any were invited?)
Then, note what Saudi King Abdullah said in his opening address.
The main headline-grabber there: the part where he termed the US troop presence in Iraq “an illegitimate foreign occupation.”
Here, by the way, are some key excerpts from the draft of the statement that will be discussed and then adopted by the summit. Since the minister-level sherpas already did a lot of work Tuesday refining this Saudi-provided draft, it is expected that it will get adopted substantially as it is.
My, goodness, how the world has changed!!
Used to be that Saudi diplomacy was timid, very unclear, and conducted behind the closed doors of places of influence– mainly inside the United States. Now, suddenly, it looks both clear and amazingly robust and well-conducted.
Back when King Abdullah brokered the Mecca Agreement between Fateh and Hamas in early February, I wrote that the Kingdom seemed seriously to have “gone off the [US-delimited] reservation” in terms of the content of its diplomacy. At the time, some people said that– in light of many long decades Saudi kowtowing to Washington–they could not believe Saudi Arabia would do that. They argued that maybe in their diplomacy over the Mecca Agreement the Saudis were still acting, effectively, as “agents” of a US plot that was particuarly heinous because it’s content and shape could not even fathomed. I said, “No! There is no way the Bushites would willingly be part of any diplomacy that involved the inclusion of Hamas rather than its continued exclusion.”
I surmised, then, that Saudi diplomacy was entering a completely new era of acting independently from the will of Washington; and since then, considerable additional evidence of this has come to light. That includes the exchange of high-level visits between the Kingdom and Iran (including Pres. Ahmedinejad’s recent visit to Riyadh); the fact and content of the joint Saudi-Iranian diplomatic initiative in Lebanon; many other strands of Riyadh’s diplomacy in the region (including regarding Syria); the King’s most recent snub of President Bush, when he abruptly turned down an invitation from Bush to host a state dinner in Washington in his honor… And now, this speech at the summit.
When I was in Egypt at the beginning of this month, many people there were remarking on the fact that suddenly it seems as if Saudi Arabia is playing the leading role in regional diplomacy that Egypt for a long time used to play. Actually, to me it now looks bigger than that: it looks as if the Saudis are now– partly through their own intent, born of desperation, and partly also because of the almost complete absence of US power or decisiveness in the region– poised to replace the even larger role in the region that the US played for many decades…
If I were King Abdullah, I’d be very attentive to issues of personal security. Many Saudi decisionmakers still harbor their own clear analyses and fears regarding the death in 1975 of the last of the Saudi monarchs to stand up to US power, Abdullah’s older half-brother King Faisal bin Abdel-Aziz. Faisal was shot dead at a family gathering by a reportedly deranged nephew who had just recently returned home from the United States.
But for now, we need mainly to understand that the Middle East is entering a significantly different era. Of course US power is not absent from the region. (And nor is Israeli power.) But the US is still led by a man of extremely limited vision and understanding, who presides over an administration at odds with itself and under growing attack from the new majority in Congress.
Back in 1975, the US and Saudi Arabia shared one vast overarching concern, which was to contain Soviet power and influence in the region. Now, many in Washington (and Israel) have tried to make the argument that Washington and the Arabs share a new overarching concern: the containment of Iranian power…. Well, maybe the Saudis and other Arabs do have some concern about Iran’s growing influence. But the way they are choosing to act on that concern is very, very different from what the Americans want them to do.
The Americans want the Arab regimes to agree with them (and the Israelis) that Iran is “the biggest” threat in and to the region– and also, if possible, to forget or at least downplay their concern for the Palestinian question. But the Arab regimes have a different view of the region and their interests in it. They consider that finding a way to manage the growing threat posed to all them by militant Islamists of all stripes– people from both inside and outside their own societies– is their first priority. And that’s a threat that would only increase if they lined up with the anti-Iran, forget-about-the-Palestinians agenda being offered to them by Washington.
Condi Rice, who has systematically insulated herself from being able to have any real understanding of regional dynamics or concerns by surrounding herself with high-level neocons like the two Elliotts, seems to have no clue how to respond to all this. And neither, of course, does her boss the President. To me, this makes the situation significantly more unstable and scary than it might otherwise be.
But anyway, the permafrost of diplomatic inactivity that settled over all strands of Arab-Israeli diplomacy with the advent of the Bushites to power in early 2001 now seems suddenly to be melting. Fascinating times ahead.

Shadid and others on the “widening” Sunni-Shiite rift

I see my younger colleague Anthony Shadid has been in Cairo, and he has a Cairo-datelined piece in today’s WaPo to which his editors gave this scaremongering headline: “Across Arab World, a Widening Rift; Sunni-Shiite Tension Called Region’s ‘Most Dangerous Problem’.”
Called that by what percentage of Egyptians or other Arabs, you may ask?
Turns out, regarding Egyptians, Shadid provides no evidence that it has been called that by any Egyptians at all. None. Zero. Nada. The quote-ette used by his headline writers there is one from Ghassan Charbel, a Maronite Christian who’s most likely from Lebanon, a country that these days is plagued by its own sharp political differences, some of which have a sectarian aspect.
From Egyptians, all that Shadid is able to provide by way of “evidence” for the headline-writer’s claim is two items:
1. This quote about sectarian divisiveness, from writer and analyst Mohammed al-Sayid Said: “To us Egyptians… [it is] entirely artificial. It resonates with nothing in our culture, nothing in our daily life. It’s not part of our social experience, cultural experience or religious experience.” But he added: “I think this can devastate the region.” (Left unclear: whether he included Egypt itself in the portion of the region that might be thus devastated, and what probability he assigned to this happening.)
2. This completely ambiguous description of the behavior of a (presumably Sunni?) sidewalk book vendor called Mahmoud Ahmed: “”The Shiites are rising,’ he said, arching his eyebrows in an expression suggesting both revelation and fear.”
And this is evidence??
I wonder, did Shadid go on and ask Mr. Ahmed the quite logical follow-up question, “And how do you feel about that rise?” If so, what answer did he get? Did he, more to the point, ask Ahmed or anyone else in Egypt whether in fact they consider sectarian divisiveness to be their region’s “most dangerous problem”? Did he, indeed, ask them to rank the danger they perceive from that phenomenon against that from, for example, further US military attacks in the region, or other US or Israeli actions here?
There are a few other significant things about the way Shadid’s piece has been constructed. First of all, I should note that Shadid does offer some intriguing and substantial evidence that Egyptian “men in the street” (no women quoted at all, I note… I wonder, do they not count?) are not actually very worried about the prospect of the relative rise in Shiite power in the region… Read the last one-third of his piece for that. Here’s what he says of a downtown Cairo tea-vendor and his customer:

    Both scoffed at the sectarian tensions.
    “There’s a proverb that says, ‘Divide and conquer,’ ” Mohammed said. “Sunnis and Shiites — they’re not both Muslims? What divides them? Who wants to divide them? In whose interest is it to divide them?” he asked.
    “It’s in the West’s interest,” he answered. “And at the head of it is America and Israel.” He paused. “And Britain.”

Left unclear there was whether the quoted tea purchaser, Muhsin Mohammed, is himself a Sunni or Shiite. Most likely a Sunni, since only around one million of Egypt’s 75 million people are Shiites.
Shadid goes straight on from there to write, “That sense of Western manipulation is often voiced by Shiite clerics and activists, who say the United States incites sectarianism as a way of blunting Iran’s influence.” Then the evidence he provides of that comes from Lebanese Hizbullah head Hassan Nasrallah and some leaders of the Shiite community in eastern Saudi Arabia.
Left unreported by him were the statements forcefully rejecting Sunni-Shiite divisiveness that have been issued by both the Supreme Guide of the (Sunni) Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (e.g. here) and the Shaikh of the influential, government-backed Al-Azhar Mosque here in Cairo… In other words, Shadid leaves the reader able to think that it is only the Shiites among the Islamist religio-political activists who see the threats of sectarianism as a western plot, and that maybe the Sunni activists are all currently consumed by and contributing to the fears of the Shiites’ “rise”.
Ain’t so.
As I have written before, I see the main relevance of this whole issue, and the one-sided nature of the reporting on it in the US big media, as being the degree to which US decisionmakers might expect to win support from the Sunni-Arab states and their publics in the event of a US military attack on Iran. Most people in the policymaking community in Washington DC realize that to launch an attack on Iran in the absence of substantial support from the Arab states would be to leave all those US troops who are currently spread out very thinly in the Middle East, and the very vulnerable supply lines that support them, extremely exposed to the possibility of themselves being attacked. And therefore, to attack Iran in the absence of solid evidence of the probability of such support would be the height of recklessnes– actually, imho, recklessness to a criminal degree.
Administration officials and others who are either preparing the ground for an attack on Iran or actively advocating such an attack have therefore launched a broad campaign to persuade the rest of the (increasingly skeptical) US policy elite that this attack could garner wide Arab support. My judgment, which I have tried to express in various places, is that it would not… And everyone in the US policy elite needs to be very clear about that.
One of the key things I have found from my contacts here in Cairo so far is that anti-Americanism runs far, far deeper than any concerns about Iran or about the Shiites’ “rise”.
This was also found by the Zogby poll of opinion in six Arab countries with pro-US governments whose results Shibley Telhami released (possibly sooner than he was supposed to?) on February 9. (Hat-tip to Abu Aardvark for that link, which I “Delicioused” a couple of days ago.) That PDF file there contains more than 100 easy-to-read “slides” that present the survey’s results. I gathered from elsewhere that the survey was taken last November.
That’s significant, because it was taken before the Saddam-execution video, which no doubt did affect opinions to some degree. Though it’s not clear how lasting those effects were… Public opinion trends move very fast indeed in the Middle East these days. And the Saddam-execution story is nowadays very much “yesterday’s news” here, having been largely overtaken by all the Arab and Muslim concerns about Al-Aqsa mosque, jubilation at the Fateh-Hamas peace deal, etc… In other words, by stories that have tended to unite rather than divide the Muslims of the region.
But anyway, another interesting question: Why did the (US) people who commissioned this opinion poll delay so long before releasing the results??
You can find a brief description of the methodology on the last slide in Shibley’s collection there. The six countries were Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia (KSA), and the United Arab Emirates. Note that the population of Egypt alone among those is greater than the populations of all the other five put together, though there were only 800 Egyptians among the 3,850 individuals questioned by the pollsters.
So what were some of the main findings of the poll?
p.3: “Please tell me which world leader (outside your own country) you admire most:”

    #1, Hassan Nasrallah– 14%; #2, Chirac– 8%; #3– Ahmadinejad– 4%; #4 Chavez– 3%. [Note that that wording excluded from consideration the views Lebanese people would have expressed about Nasrallah, roughly half of whom might otherwise have named him; and it also thereby distributed more votes among other ‘contestants’ in this race than they would otherwise have won… On the other hand, population-wise, lebanon doesn’t affect the total outcome very much.]

p.7: “Please tell me which world leader (oustide your own country) you dislike most?”

    #1, Bush– 38%; #2, Sharon– 11%; #3, Olmert 7%; #4, Blair– 3%. Sharon + Olmert comes to 18%. The combined totals for these US, British, and Israeli leaders comes to 59%.

p.17: Name the two countries that you think pose the biggest threat to you:”

    #1, US– 74%; #2, Israel– 79%; #3, Iran– 6%.

I note that Marc (Abu Aardvark) has published this update to his post:

    UPDATE: the Anwar Sadat Center, under whose auspices Shibley Telhami conducts these surveys, has contacted me to let me know that they made an error in their preliminary calculations on the question “which two countries pose the greatest threat”. The correct figure for the United States is 72%, not 74%; and the correct figure for Iran is 11%, not 6%. (Israel is #1 at 85% in the corrected calcuations).

The results on p.22 are very worth reading.
On p.25 we have this: “Generally speaking, is your attitude toward the US very favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable or very unfavorable?”

Continue reading “Shadid and others on the “widening” Sunni-Shiite rift”

Sunni Arab view of US-Iran Tensions

If jwn readers and our generous host will pardon me, I (Scott) wish to draw early attention to Helena Cobban’s important column in today’s Christian Science Monitor. Writing from Cairo, Helena provides us with her reading of Sunni Arab sentiment towards a war with Iran.

As the level of tension rises between the US and Iran, I am very concerned that the Bush administration is trying to paint a scenario of the probable consequences of a possible US military action against Iran that is far more rosy than the situation warrants.
One key example: Both Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley have talked about the great threat that Sunni Arab countries perceive from Iran, which is predominantly non-Arab and Shiite. Some advocates of an attack (in the US and Israel) have argued that a US strike on Iran would be welcomed in Sunni-dominated nations and would therefore generally bolster the region’s forces of stability. My current tour in Egypt contradicts that. The Egyptians I’ve talked to so far – including retired diplomats, experienced political analysts, and journalists – have expressed unanimous opposition to any US attack against Iran.

This profoundly “different” observation challenges depressing contentions here in the US that some Sunni Arab governments may, like the Israelis, be pushing for the US to confront Iran militarily. Helena’s Arab sources are not nearly so enthused.
Recalling how wrong the “cake walk” scenarios for invading Iraq were, the respected Egyptian scholar and reformist, Saad Eddin Ibrahim tells Helena that, “A US attack on Iran could spread the same chaos we now see in Iraq to a number of other Arab countries. No one wants that.”
As for Hadley’s claim that Sunni Arabs feel threatened by an Iranian pursuit of nuclear options, Helena notes the telling counter view of one Egyptian diplomat: “We have lived beneath Israel’s nuclear weapons for many years, so even if Iran gets nuclear weapons it wouldn’t be anything new. Anyway, they are not that close to it.”
To the repeated mantra that Sunnis – as Sunnis – are fearful of an aggressive “Shia arc” stretching from Iran to Lebanon, Helena observes an even deeper rising regional anger – at America:

It’s true there are some concerns among Sunni Arabs about the growing influence of the (sometimes Iran-backed) Shiite populations present in many Arab countries. But well-informed Egyptians have stressed to me that anti-Americanism now runs much, much deeper than any concerns about Iranian or Shiite influence. That anti-Americanism has been hardened, they say, by the policies Washington has pursued toward Iraq and the Palestinian territories, and toward Israel during its destructive attack on targets in Lebanon last summer.
Many Sunni Arab leaders find themselves trapped uncomfortably between those popular attitudes and their own strategic alliances with Washington. Their reactions during last summer’s Israel-Hizbullah war were instructive. They started out expressing timid support for Israel’s attacks on Hizbullah. But as their publics swung behind Hizbullah, they quickly joined the growing calls for a very rapid cease-fire. In the event of a US strike on Iran, these leaders will probably need to show similar responsiveness to public pressure. And that pressure is now strongly anti-American.

How convenient it has been for Hadley & Rice to forget Pogo and instead try to change the subject – to blame Iran for the dark shadow across the region. That might work in America, but not, as Helena sees it thus far, in the Middle East.
In case you missed it, the subtitle for Helena’s column reads:

There’s virtually unanimous opposition to a US attack on Iran.

“Bottom line” implication follows for Americans:

In 2007, as in 2003, they need to be very skeptical indeed of the rosy scenarios being conjured up by the advocates of war. An attack on Iran risks bringing terrible harm to US forces and innocent civilians both in and far beyond the locus of any such attack.
Back in 2002-03, the Bush administration ignored the advice offered by the vast majority of Middle East specialists. Listening only to ideologues and others with a strong pro-war bias, it rushed the US into a war that continues to have terrible consequences for everyone concerned. We cannot let that happen again. Now, as then, there is no rosy scenario. Now, as then, many diplomatic channels for resolving our differences exist. Our leaders must now use them.

Well said Helena! No doubt you will have much more for us to “see” from your independent listening post in Cairo…

Whither the Shiite-Sunni “split”

So here I am in Cairo. One of the big issues I plan to look here at is this much-reported-on polarization of attitudes between the Shiites and Sunnis of the Middle East.
Abu Aardvark and Badger are two of the people who have done the most to give us the details of how this relatively new polarization has been spreading almost “virally” throughout much of the Arab world. (There is also some very deadly Shiite-Sunni tension in Pakistan, that is more of a long-running thing; and a certain amount of it historically in Afghanistan, too. But I think the dynamics there might be a bit different? Anyway, I don’t feel qualified to comment on those phenomena. The Middle East alone is quite hard enough to fathom and explain.)
What is frequently described as a Shiite-Sunni “polarization” in today’s Arab world is, in fact, more like a tsunami of anti-Shiite agitation, propagandizing, and also apparently real sentiment that has been sweeping many Sunni-dominated Arab socieies. One of the first things to note is how incredibly fast this tsunami has gathered its force. I mean, it was only last September that we were hearing about the vendors in Cairo’s (deeply Sunni) street-markets naming the choicest among their special Eid baskets of dates after Hizbullah head Sayed Hassan Nasrallah… But here we are today, a bare 4-5 months later, and rumors– never yet substantiated!– of widespread and scary Shiite campaigns to convert Sunnis, and other nefarious plots that are all somehow Shiite-related seem to be sweeping through Egypt and other Sunni Arab communities like wildfire.
So one of the things that I want to do while I’m here is to really probe what’s been happening. And also, to survey the possible future directions in which this sign of sectarian fitna (complete social breakdown) might go.
It seems evident that the whole series of episodes that surrounded the execution of Saddam (and his half brother) at year’s end did a lot to catalyze and/or exacerbate this tsunami of anti-Shiite feeling among many Sunnis… But that is certainly not all that has been afoot. Other very relevant factors include the fact that after three-years-plus of increasingly sectarian carnage in Iraq, the nerves and sensibilities of nearly everyone in the Arab world are very raw. At this level, it doesn’t even “help” the argument much to note that the greatest number by far of casualties from sectarian violence there have been Shiites– those thousands of Iraqi Shiites who have been killed over the past three-plus years by acts of anti-civilian violence of almost mind-numbing callousness… Bombs in markets, bombs in mosques, bombs at religious festivals, etc etc.
And yes, there has also been some extremely callous counter-violence against Iraqi Sunnis. The torture chambers, the mass arrest campaigns, the hundreds of mutilated bodies of Sunni men tossed out on the roadside… But in addition to the hurt from that violence there is also, probably, for many Iraqi Sunnis a broader sense of a stark new vulnerability. From having been valued members of (for many of them) a relatively well-cared-for and well-educated elite– and lauded by many of their fellow Arabs for their role as a bulwark against Iran– most of Iraq’s Sunnis were reduced within a few short months to being members of an extremely vulnerable minority in their own country. That kind of rapid downward mobility can easily– as in post-1919 Germany– be a ready incubator for hate-fueled or even genocidal ideologies…
And in another corner of the Arab world we have Lebanon, where the “national unity” of last summer turned very rapidly– and with the determined help of the Americans– into a sullen form of Shiite-Sunni jousting for power. In Lebanon, too, as in Iraq, the Sunnis have been faced with having to give up a social and political ascendancy over the Shiites (though notably never, in Lebanon, over the Christians) that dated back to the days of the– determinedly Sunni– Ottoman Empire. In a sense, I suppose you could say that what is happening in both Lebanon and Iraq is a last-stage crumbling away of some last vestiges of the Ottoman-bequeathed social order…. And it hasn’t been a happy process for the Sunni communities of those two countries.
Add into this mix a few other complicating factors, too. Starting off with a powerful US-Israeli strategic axis in the region that (a) has projected a very powerful message that the use of force is quite okay in the modern era, while resisting and blocking nearly all the available channels for talking through differences rather than fighting over them, (b) has played a documented role in stoking the internal discord and violence in at least one very visible area: occupied Palestine, and (c) has showed itself openly eager to try to enrol the Sunni Arab regimes, and as much as possible of the Arab publics, in a coalition dedicated to confronting or rolling back the growth of Iran’s regional power. Which, by the way, is Shiite.
The complete smashing-up of the Iraqi state, which many other Arabs had in an earlier era seen as a bastion of the “Arab nation’s” defense against Iran, has certainly heightened all these sensitivities and fears. (Less so, I think, the Iranian nuclear program, though that has been the focus of most of the concern in the west. The Middle Eastern Arabs have, after all, lived for many decades now under the shadow of a local power that is nuclear-armed and has a record of hostile actions against them that is considerably lengthier than Iran’s.)
Then, too, have you seen how easily all these descriptions of the nature of this current crisis can slide between one based primarily on sect (Sunni and Shiite) and one based primarily on ethnicity (Arab and Iranian)? This is another complex aspect of the problem. And in this regard, once again, as in the early 1980s, the ultimate (or at least medium-term) allegiances of the ethnic-Arab Shiites who populate the northern reaches of the Arabian/Persian Gulf will prove key to the way the whole situation turns out.
When Saddam invaded Iran in September 1980, he and his people were betting (as some neocons do once again today) that they could rely on the anti-Persian sentiments of many of Iran’s non-Persian nationalities… Including crucially, the allegedly pro-Baghdad sentiments of those millions of ethnic Arabs who populate Iran’s Ahvaz region, to the east of the Shatt al-Arab. (Very productive oil territory, too.)
But it didn’t work. Back in the 1980s some combination of “national” (i.e. pan-Iranian) and sectarian (Shiite) allegiance proved strong enough to overcome any tendency the Ahvaz Arabs might have had towards ethnic solidarity with Baghdad. They didn’t rise against the mullahs’ regime in Teheran. And nor did any of the other peripheral ethnic minorities whom Saddam had been relying on.
This time around, a lot of what determines how the present threat of regionwide fitna turns out will hang on the outcome of a broadly similar clash of loyalties amongst the many millions of Shiites of southern Iraq— who are the close neighbors and sometimes cousins of their co-ethnics and Shiite co-sectarians right acorss the border. Over the coming months and years will they show their loyalties more to the Iraqi nation and their Arab ethnicity, or to their Shiite co-sectarians in Iran? (This is another take on the issue of the “battle of the narratives” inside Iraq that i wrote about a month ago, here.)
I’ll note a couple of things in this regard. The Iraqis Shiites may have “won” an unprecedented degree of political power, due to the US toppling of Saddam and the subsequent de-Baathification campaigns pursued under US auspices. But if political power was something they longed for for all these decades past, then the actual experience they have had of it in the past four years must have been extremely disappointing. Many of their communities have been ravaged by those hundreds of acts of enormous, anti-civilian savagery, and have lost any sense of public security. And meanwhile the “government” to which they were handed the keys was one that (1) had already been denuded of all the actual instruments of governance, and (2) continued to have its freedom of action circumscribed at every turn by the Americans… So they couldn’t even use the government to assure their own most basic security and wellbeing, let alone having tmuch wherewithal with which to reach out “generously” to their Sunni compatriots.
Also, we’ve seen generally lousy leadership from all strata of the political class in Iraq: Shiite, Sunni, or “nationalist”. Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising, given the extent to which Saddam, Hussein had stripped the country of any ability to generate good and visionary successor leaders. He murdered scores of such individuals as they arose within the country! Tom Friedman has famously (and perhaps more than slightly accusingly) asked, “Where is the Arab Martin Luther King, Jr.?” I would say that more than that, what would be great would be an Arab Nelson Mandela: someone who could help unify his people around a clear and compelling political program, stick to it until victory, and then act with gracious magnanimity to the people who had thereby lost a degree of their earlier power.
(Mandela and the ANC achieved this, I should note, through a nuanced combination of main reliance on unarmed civilian mass action, supplemented by the actions of a relatively small but symbolically important armed wing. But mainly what strikes me about the ANC’s strength was its focus on organizing, organizing, organizing… and on an internal discipline that was honed over 82 years of nationalist struggle before they reached victory in 1994.)
The nearest that the Arab Shiites have to such a figure is Sayed Hassan Nasrallah. But I don’t think he yet has anything like the gravitas and wisdom of Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela. It would be great to see him reach out with some gestures of grand magnanimity to the many distressed Sunnis in the Arab world… Particularly, the distressed Sunnis of Iraq.
And then, talking of distressed Sunnis, we also of course have the Palestinians… whose duly elected parliamentary leaders of the Hamas movement have maintained good relations with Teheran. Now Hamas also has close ideological and organizational relations with the Muslim Brotherhood in both Egypt and Jordan. It must be a constant, looming concern for the Bushists that the harshness of the Israeli policies against Hamas that they in general strongly support might at any point tip the political balance in one or both of those key, overwhelmingly Sunni countries against their present pro-US rulers and in favor of the Muslim Brothers… So the anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian propaganda campaigns that these regimes in Cairo and Amman have been undertaking also seem to have the goal of trying to distract their peoples’ attention away from the crisis that continues to grip the Palestinians.
Where is this all headed? That’s one of the things I want to try to figure out more over over my two-plus-week visit here.
One general observation I’ll make is that these days, and perhaps especially in this region, history seems to be proceeding at a dizzyingly fast pace. Near the head of this (admittedly slightly rambly) post I noted the speed with which the present round of anti-Shiite agitation seems to have sunk some roots in Sunni Arab communities. But this trend could stop, or even be reversed, with just the same kind of speed. I have the distinct sense that the coming three to six months will be momentous for this whole region… And yes, I believe that will be the case even if (God willing!) the Bushists should finally decide not to launch any military attack against Iran.
But if they do take such a foolhardy and callous step, then the whole region might erupt in quite unpredictable ways.

The Bushites’ latest weapon: SADDAM

What to call the new, Middle East-wide coalition that the Bushites are seeking to build in the Middle East (as described by David Ignatius in this fairly fawning account of an interview he had with Condi Rice recently)?
Moroccan-American writer Issandr el-Amrani has a good suggestion:

    I suggest that this new coalition be renamed to something less technocratic: the Sunni Arab-Dominated Dictatorships Against the Mullahs, or SADDAM. I have to confess I was inspired by historical precedent. In the 1980s, some of you may remember, there was another Saddam who proved rather useful against Iran. Saddam invaded Iran without provocation, sparking an eight-year-long war that was one of the 20th century’s deadliest. Along the way, the U.S. and the Arab states listed above provided much in funding, weapons and turning a blind eye when Saddam got carried away and used chemical weapons against Kurds (it did not raise that much of a fuss when he used them against Iranians, either).
    By forming SADDAM, the Bush administration hopes to do several things. Firstly, encourage countries with ambivalent policies towards Israel to accept a new regional security arrangement with the Jewish state firmly as its center—the holy grail of the neo-conservatives who, despite reports to the contrary, continue to craft U.S. Middle East policy. (Otherwise, why would Elliott Abrams still have his job?) Secondly, it is securing the support of these countries against Iran, in preparation for a possible strike against its nuclear facilities or some other form of military action, or at least to ensure the recently announced United Nations sanctions against Iran are effective. One tactic is getting the oil-producing SADDAM countries to up production and bring the price of the oil barrel back to under $50, as Saudi Arabia is obviously doing by boycotting calls by fellow OPEC members to cut production.
    At stake is limiting one of the biggest effects caused by the administration’s decision to invade Iraq (and subsequently failing to maintain order): the rise of Iran as a regional power…

This whole article is a fine, fine piece of analysis and of writing. I nominate it for whatever awards there are.

After the war, the battle for the broader peace

This latest Israeli war on Hizbullah and the whole of Lebanon may not be over. But whether it is or not, it’s already time to discuss important questions about the nature of the peace that should follow . And I’m not talking here only about the shape of the post-war order in Lebanon (which seems to be the extent of George Bush’s ever-myopic purview), but more importantly, the shape of the post-war order in the whole Arab-Israeli arena.
Several Israelis have already noted– realistically, in my view– that the strategic defeat Ehud Olmert has suffered in Lebanon represents a defeat for his favored stance of “unilateral convergence” in the West Bank, as well. As several Israeli and other commentators have pointed out, Barak’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 did not prevent Hizbullah’s rockets from raining down on northern Israel, and Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 did not stop Hamas’s rockets from raining down on southern Israel. So why would anyone imagine that a unilateral withdrawal from portions of the West Bank would leave central Israel any safer than the north or the south?
Good question.
The problem as I see it is that in any withdrawal that’s quite unilateral, then Israel does not have an interlocutor on the other side of the line who has signed any commitments regarding non-aggression, and who has been given enough incentives in the course of that negotiation that they are prepared to enforce those commitments. Instead of that, the success of a Barak- or Sharon-style unilateral withdrawal depended solely on Israel’s ability to use military deterrence to prevent aggressions against it, including the use of wall-hopping rockets, from the people on the other side of the line. And in the absence of any negotiated agreement– during the negotiating of which the non-Israeli party would have received non-trivial benefits including economic incentives, Israeli promises of non-aggression, etc– then the propensity of the people on the other side of the line to be deterred by Israel’s military might actually be quite low.
So the supposition I expressed earlier in the year, that a de-facto situation of “parallel unilateralisms” might continue fairly stably between the Israelis and Gaza for two or three years has been proven false. Israel’s vision of military deterrence of its immediate neighbors has failed, and the Sharon-Olmert vision of unilateralism with regard to the Palestinians has taken a body blow along with it, too.
Bibi Netanyahu was, of course, one of the first to point out the link between Olmert’s setback in Lebanon and the failure of Sharonist unilateralism. And I agree with him. Where I strongly disagree with him is over what other kind of policy Israel should follow, instead.
For his part, Yossi Beilin, the leader of the faintly leftwing Meretz Party, has also started asking some tough questions about this topic… Including whether it would not have been better for Israel to have sought to include Syria in the diplomatic effort to resolve the Lebanon crisis, instead of excluding it… and also, whether the aftermath of this war should see the convening of a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace conference along the lines of the Madrid conference of October 1991.
Beilin is completely right. His proposal that a Madrid-type conference be convened is completely in line with what I called for in my CSM column last Thursday. He is also right to note that,

    the gaps in the matter of the final status arrangements have been greatly narrowed over the last 15 years. In Israel of 2006, there is a near-consensus about a Palestinian state, and Israel’s prime minister is ready to give up 90 percent of the West Bank, unilaterally. The Clinton document, the Bush “vision,” the Road Map, the Arab League Summit decision of 2002 and the Geneva Initiative all paint a clear picture of a permanent Israeli-Palestinian agreement. The public and secret talks with the Syrians since 1991 also sketch, nearly completely, the outline of an Israeli-Syrian agreement.

But how about the politics of such a bold move? Beilin notes that in 1991, it was the US that took the initiative, poking and prodding a reluctant Israel to take part in the Madrid conference. But, he adds,

    This time it will be Olmert’s job to persuade President Bush that prying Syria out of the Axis of Evil, peace with Lebanon and an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are practical moves, which – if they work – could save the Middle East and help achieve the reforming vision Bush believes in so much.

H’mm. I am certainly not holding my breath that Olmert will show such wisdom and initiative. But if the sane (i.e. non-US) parts of the “international community” as a whole could gather themselves strongly enough around the idea of a speedy, comprehensive, and fair Middle East peace, and could gather enough Israelis and enough Arab governments and people around this plan, too, then perhaps the US citizenry and its government could also become sufficiently persuaded that this is a good and long overdue idea?
Anyway, this battle for the nature of the post-war regional order is already being joined within Israeli society. So right now, all the other governments of the world should make clear to the Israeli voters and leaders that after two Qanas there will be no further international tolerance for Israel’s continued recourse to militarism and colonialist expansion. And that it is time to conclude that kind of a fair peace that will allow Israelis, Palestinians, and Syrians all flourish.
(Should any of this actually be controversial at all?)
Meanwhile there should be no further subsidizing at all of any policies, pursued by any party in the Arab-Israeli theater, that are belligerent, militaristic, and aggrandizing… And there should be no double standards on this, at all. The world has seen the ghasty results of the Israel-excusing double standards that have been pursued in the Middle East up until now.

Ann Kerr and American values

My dear friend Ann Kerr, with whom Bill and I spent the past weekend in California, had a heart-rending op-ed in yesterday Christian Science Monitor that’s appropriately titled The murder of American values in Lebanon.
Her piece is a tiny out-take from the big project she’s working on, in which she has gone back to interview four Arab women who were her room-mates when she did a year’s undergraduate study at the American University of Beirut (AUB) back in the mid-1950s. These women are Lebanese, Palestinian, Iraqi, and Syrian. They are Christian and Muslim. They have all, it seems, led fascinating lives much marked by all the political turmoil through which their families have passed.
Ann is currently writing these interviews up into a book. (She has already published two: this one, and this one.)
Another thing that has marked Ann’s life deeply is that her husband, the distinguished scholar of Middle Eastern politics Malcolm Kerr, was murdered in 1983 in his office in Beirut, where he was the newly installed President of AUB. His assailants were reportedly Lebanese Shiite militants affiliated with a pre-Hizbullah network, who struck him (presumably) because he was a prominent symbol in Lebanon of the US, which gave Israel a green light for the military assault and subsequent, debilitating occupation of one third of Lebanon that the IDF had launched just the previous year.
Those networks were acting in a quite anti-humane and illegal way when they targeted killed and kidnapped civilians in Lebanon in those days. Yes, they were acting out of their own intense pain, after an Israeli military operation that killed an estimated 17,000-19,000 Lebanese and Palestinian people in lebanon, the vast majority of them civilians. But still, that was no excuse.
I never knew Malcolm Kerr, though he was a good friend and colleague of my spouse’s– and he was always someone who had tried to understand the Arab viewpoint and worked for balance and fairness in US Middle East policy. Over the years, though, I came to know Ann and to love and admire her a lot. She and her four kids were, quite understandably, devastated by Malcolm’s killing. But they notably did not let that grief and anger become transformed into any kind of broader anger against “all Arabs” or “all Muslims” or “all Shiites”. Just the opposite. In the years since 1983, Ann has been a constant advocate for better understanding between US citizens and all the peoples of the Middle East. For some years, she led a program that took smart US students on visits to a number of Arab countries. She wrote and published those two earlier books. The first is a poignant evocation of Malcolm Kerr’s life– he grew up at AUB in the 1940s, since his parents both also taught there– and of their life together, the family they founded, and the grief the family suffered after his killing… The second book is built around many of the beautiful watercolor landscapes Ann has painted in various countries of the Middle East over the years…
Anyway, nowadays whenever we’re together Ann and I often talk for hours. We differ on some issues (pacifism, the value of the US-style trial system, etc.) But we agree on much, much more than we disagree on! Three or four years ago she persuaded me to join the “Leadership Council” of a DC-based organization called Churches for Middle East Peace, which does some excellent if low-key advocacy work on Middle East peace issues
Anyway, it was great to see her CSM op-ed. Its argument, incidentally, picks up well on the theme in this specially commissioned column that I wrote actually on September 11, 2001. That one appeared in the 9/13/2006 edition of the paper. It was titled Don’t let our values be a casualty, too, and it started like this:

    We may not know for many days yet how high the human casualties of Tuesday’s attacks will mount. But we should take care that some of our country’s basic values don’t fall casualty to the attacks, too…

But goodness, back then these were the main values that I listed as being in possible jeopardy: “Things like our capacity to reason calmly, our sense of caring for one another, and a basic optimism that – in spite of these horrifying acts -there are still things we can do to make the world a better place.” If only I could have seen back then that it would be not only those capacities in the US population that would be sadly undermined over the years that followed by our government (and the vast complicit parts of the news media), but also many fundamental portions of the US Constitution and the country’s respect for the rule of law, as well.
I guess I couldn’t even conceive of that back then.
So yes, all of us, inside and outside the United States, have reason to mourn the murder of many of the best of American values over the past five years.

Arab-Israeli peacemaking: comprehensive or not?

The International Crisis Group came out Tuesday with a report on the Israel-Lebanon and Israel-Palestine crises. It concluded with four recommendations, of which the first one is:

    First, the Gaza and Lebanon crises need to be dealt with separately. Though related both chronologically and in terms of the sparks that triggered them, the reasons behind Hamas’s action have little to do with those motivating Hizbollah’s. Bundling them together only complicates efforts at resolution.

I disagree strongly with this. Since the beginning of the Israel-Lebanon crisis I have urged that this regionally explosive situation can be successfully addressed only if an urgent, authoritative international (UNSC) effort is launched to rapidly find a final resolution to all dimensions of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
This means peacemaking to finally resolve the Palestine-Israel, Syria-Israel, and Lebanon-Israel disputes.
This is do-able, since everybody involved (except a small handful of Jewish-extremist and Arab-extremist diehards) basically knows, understands, and accepts what a sustainable final diplomatic outcome would look like.
And given the continuing, unacceptable loss of human life and the extreme precariousness of the current political/strategic situation throughout the whole region, finding a final, comprehensive resolution to the Israeli-Arab conflict is now more urgent and necessary than ever.
The Crisis group’s report urges (as the other three of its four recommendations) that:

    Secondly, resolution of the Palestinian crisis should rest on a simple equation: governance in exchange for a cessation of hostilities…
    Thirdly, an immediate Israeli-Lebanese ceasefire is necessary: pursuing a military knockout is unrealistic and counterproductive….
    Fourthly, to be sustainable, the ceasefire needs to be urgently followed by intensive diplomatic efforts to tackle root causes – all of them…

I note that points 2 and 3 there only call for partial, interim measures. (I would, however, have put: “securing an immediate ceasefire on all fronts” as Number 1 on any list, not number 3.)
Under four, the report urges these actions:

    * resumption of an urgent internal Lebanese dialogue on full implementation of the 1989 Taif Accords and Resolution 1559 items;
    * swift return of displaced persons to the South as prolongation of the current untenable situation risks producing an internal explosion;
    * urgent donor and especially Arab commitments to help with Lebanon’s reconstruction;
    * resolution of pending Israeli-Lebanese issues so as to dry up the complaints that feed Hizbollah’s militancy;
    * engaging Syria and Iran as a means of inducing Hizbollah cooperation; and
    * reinvigorating the whole Israeli-Arab peace process.
    [The rport continues:] This last point is key. The accelerated plunge into the abyss is the price paid for six years of diplomatic neglect; without a negotiating process, regional actors have been left without rules of the game, reference points or arbiters. In this respect, although their dynamics are different and they need separate solutions, the Palestinian and Lebanese crises clearly intersect. Only through a serious and credible rekindling of the long dormant peace process can there be any hope whatsoever of addressing, and eliminating, root causes.

Their mentioning– even if only in “fourth” place– of the need for a broad Arab-israeli peacemaking effort is welcome. But the actual approach that they urge is very different (and much more segmented and incremental) than what I think is necessary. Surely, what’s needed is a full-press effort to convene an authoritative and comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace conference. The populations of Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Israel have suffered for far too long from the international community’s failure to help them resolve this dispute.
I totally do not understand the reasoning behind the stress the Crisis Group has put on trying to “deal with” the Lebanon and Gaza crises “separately” in the short term, and to deal with Arab-Israeli peacemaking in such a segmented way thereafter. It looks suspiciously like a continuation of the international community’s (read, the US’s) very shopworn and harmful old policy of trying to play divide and rule among the Arabs…

Bring in the Security Council?

Suddenly, the Middle East is facing three very grave crises, each of which threatens international peace and security and all of which have the potential to reverberate very seriously against each other. I believe the UN Security Council should be called into a special session to see what it can do to prevent a downward spiral in the region that would be disastrous for the whole world.
The region’s three crises are these:
The elections-plus-stabilization process that the US designed for the country back in 2004 has resulted in the holding last month of a nationwide election– but that election further strengthened the country’s main sectarian/ethnic sub-groups and has thus far led to an impasse in the formation of a national government. This impasse has not been static. It has seen a horrendous recrudescence of violence. Today alone, 125 Iraqis were killed. Meanwhile, the US just started signaling that it takes no longterm responsibility for the welfare of the country. Under these circumstances, the international community needs to step in– to give Iraq’s factions the assurances they might need as they work toward forming their own government, and to make sure that all Iraq’s neighbors are on board a sensible stabilization plan that takes their fears, sensitivities– and capacity for helpful action– into full consideration.
Washington has amply demonstrated that it can achieve neither of these tasks. The UN is far from a perfect body. But no other body has the global legitimacy to step into this situation.
The peace talks between the parties that the “Road Map” process mandated have not happened and now look further than ever from happening. Events inside both Israel and Palestine over the past 18 months– and more especially, the past two weeks– show there is no hope whatsoever to revive the Road Map (which is anyway running more than 18 months behind its schedule at this point.) process. The UN, which was a party to the Road Map but which retains its own interests and principles in the matter of Palestine, needs to take urgent action– here too– to provide ressurance to very nervous local parties; to broker a workable final-status peace agreement; and to find constructive ways of involving all neighbors in this.
Iran and nuclear developments:
The Iranian government is led by an incendiary and pugnacious elected leader; he and his broad network of domestic backers and allies have decided to take their country along a path of nuclear development that– while it is still not illegal under the NPT– nevertheless causes great concern to many in the international community. But international diplomats who have more or less “accepted” that Israel, India, and Pakistan can stand outside the NPT with impunity are in a weak position to do anything effective to rein in Iran’s programs. Meanwhile, several in Israel have opnely called for military action to “destroy” Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Even if this plan were militarily feasible (which is doubtful), the political fallout from such an attack would be cataclysmic at the world level. In order to defuse the nuclear tensions in the region, the UN Security Council needs to produce a workable plan for the creation of a “Mideast and South Asia Zone Free of All WMDs.”
Why the UN?
As noted above the UN is, and is widely seen as, a highly imperfect organization. However, in all these three arenas, only the UN has the international legitimacy that’s needed to implement effective plans for de-escalation, stabilization, and the urgent holding of negotiations over long-term solutions. The US, which until now has sought to monopolize decisionmaking with regard to both Iraq and Palestine, is currently facing a serious crisis of political leadership at home and has found its military and political resources quite unequal to the task of longterm stabilization in Iraq.
I write this with no illusions that the Security Council can find any quick or simple solutions to the crises in these three arenas. But all the nations of the world have an interest in preventing any further escalations of violence in this very sensitive and explosive region. And it is time, surely, for the Security Council as a whole to remind its American permanent member that (1) it is not only the US that has interests in the Middle East, and (2) the UN as a whole has capabilities to help defuse and de-escalate the tensions in this region that are considerably broader and potentially far more effective than those currently in Washington’s hands.
In 1956, it was Washington that– working with the Security Council– took action to reassert UN principles and capabilities in the midst of a crisis that had been caused by the unauthorized military actions taken in the Middle East (the invasion of Egypt) by two Permanent Members– Britain and France– along with Israel.
In 2003, when the US decided almost unilaterally (though with support from the Britain and a few other countries) to invade Iraq, its position in world affairs was so strong that other Security Council members felt they could do little to resist or reverse Washington’s decision. Similarly, with Washington’s continued funding and other support for Israel over many years, despite Israel’s pursuit of illegal colonial projects in occupied lands. But now, Washington has shown that in both those places, its favored approach has failed to bring peace or longterm stability. Worse than that, the outcome of Washington’s actions in each arena has been to incubate a situation of grave crisis that threatens international peace and security.
So now, as in 1956, surely the Security Council as a whole needs to step in, to reassert the rights, principles, and interest of the international community in these explosive arenas. I can’t figure who else could do it.